An Insider’s Guide: Annual King Biscuit Blues Festival
Every October, music fans, and blues enthusiasts in particular have made the pilgrimage to historic Helena, Ark., for the King Biscuit Blues Festival, considered by many to be one of the most authentic blues festivals in the world. I’ve worked the festival, in one capacity or another, since 1997. For the last six years, I’ve been backstage as the chairperson of artist hospitality (yeah…I could tell you some stories!). So I’ve seen King Biscuit from all different angles.
“Everything comes out in blues music: joy, pain, struggle. Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance.” Wynton Marsalis
Here’s a list of 30 things to do during your time in historic Helena…and a few “selfie stops” to document your time at the King Biscuit Blues Festival!
- Stop by the Arkansas Welcome Center. As you make your way into historic Helena, stop by the welcome center, grab a cup of free coffee, take advantage of the free wi-fi, and pick up some brochures on Helena-West Helena and regional attractions. Before you leave, take your first “selfie” in front of the cool “Arkansas, The Natural State” rock sculpture.
- Listen to the buskers along historic Cherry Street. Buskers, or street performers, can be found all along the festival area, singing and playing for tips. Busking is almost as old as music itself…but the term was first used in English in the 1860s in Great Britain. The legendary Robert Johnson was a busker in Helena…check out the musicians along Cherry and some of the side streets…you might just see the next generation’s answer to B.B. King!
- Buy some world-famous Pasquale’s Tamales. Hot tamales are a delicacy throughout the Mississippi Delta…but these are different! Joe and Joyce St. Columbia, both life-long residents of Helena, use the secret recipe of the St. Columbia family — a mixture of an authentic Mexican tamale with a Sicilian flare added by Mr. Joe’s grandfather. The food truck is located behind the Main Stage on Cherry Street. The menu also includes homemade chili, scrumptious muffuletta sandwiches, and fried pies.
- Listen to the music from a canoe or kayak while floating on the Mighty Mississippi. Quapaw Canoe Company leads guided canoe tours of the river, as well as offering rentals on canoes and kayaks. Quapaw Canoe Company offices are located at 411 Ohio St. in downtown Helena.
- Hang out on the Mississippi River levee for a great view of the Main Stage. Bring your lawn chair or blanket and relax and enjoy the performances. Make friends with the person sitting next to you…see how many people you can meet from different countries!
- Visit Tent City. Located at the Helena River Reach Park near the Mississippi River, the camping area welcomes a collection of campers and hard-core blues fans from around the world in the week leading up to The Biscuit. They even have a “mayor” of Tent City.
- Attend a live broadcast of King Biscuit Time. The longest-running daily blues radio show in the U.S, the legendary program is hosted by Blues Hall of Famer “Sunshine” Sonny Payne, who has been at the helm of the show since 1951. The radio show was the launching pad for, among others, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Robert Lockwood, Jr. The legendary B.B. King was quoted as saying he would listen to King Biscuit Time while working in the cotton fields in nearby Mississippi. The broadcast takes place at the Delta Cultural Center Visitors Center at 141 Cherry St. While you’re there, take a selfie in front of the drum used by the King Biscuit Time band.
- Stroll along the levee walk. You’ll get a great view of the historic downtown area.
- Head to the Main Stage for the Michael Burks Memorial Jam on Warm-Up Wednesday, Oct. 7. Warm-Up Wednesday is an opportunity for people to experience a “behind-the-scenes” look at how the festival comes together. Food and beverage vendors will be open to the public, and festival wristbands (required to access the Main Stage area) and Blues Bucks will also be available for purchase. The official Festival Store will also be open, offering a wide variety of licensed King Biscuit Blues Festival products, including t-shirts, posters, pins and much more. The Michael Burks Memorial Jam is free and open to the public and always features performers who come in early for the festival.
- Visit Bubba’s Blues Corner at 105 Cherry St. You can browse the selections of CDs and vinyl, and don’t miss Bubba’s personal music memorabilia. Bubba’s is also where many of the performers at the Biscuit go after their set to sign autographs and meet the fans.
- Follow your nose to Walnut St. Check out the contestants at this year’s BBQ & Blues on the Levee, now a Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned event. Up to 49 teams will be competing in the contest along the 100 and 200 blocks of Walnut, preparing their best in chicken, pork, pork ribs, and beef brisket. There are also competitions for best cocktail and Bloody Mary.
- Visit Fort Curtis and Freedom Park, two of historic Helena’s Civil War interpretive sites. Fort Curtis, located at 350 Columbia St., is a reproduction of the Union Civil War fort that was built in 1862. Freedom Park (located at 750 South Biscoe St.) includes five major exhibits that explore the African-American experience in Civil War Helena and was the first site in Arkansas named to the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program.
- Check out the “Front Porch Blues Bash” offered by the Delta Cultural Center. Offering a varied range of performers and musical styles, the event takes place at the Miller Annex, located at 223 Cherry, and is free and open to the public. This year’s performers include Blind Mississippi Morris, Gary Burnside, and the Front Porch Youth Jam.
- Pick up a copy of this year’s official KBBF poster. Created by artist Rebecca Ann Edwards, the piece features the iconic image of Sonny Boy Williamson and his harmonica, along with the drum from the original King Biscuit Time radio show. In the background, historic Cherry Street in downtown Helena is displayed.
- Peruse the fabulous food offerings from the vendors on Cherry Street. You’ll find everything from alligator to barbecue to gyros to gourmet pickles to corn dogs!
- Take a selfie in front of the historic blues levee mural, located just east of the festival’s Main Stage.
- Make a side trip to Magnolia Cemetery in Helena, final resting place of bluesmen Frank Frost and Robert Nighthawk.
- Stop by the beautiful Pillow-Thompson House. Built in 1896, the historic Pillow-Thompson House, located at 718 Perry St., has been beautifully restored to offer visitors a look at one of the finest examples of Queen Anne architecture in the South.
- Visit some of the great shops and stores in downtown Helena. Grab some souvenirs for friends and family.
- Make your way to the 5th annual Call and Response blues symposium at the Malco Theater.
- Visit the music exhibits at the Delta Cultural Center Visitors Center at 141 Cherry Street. The exhibits chronicle musicians that called the Arkansas Delta home, ranging from Conway Twitty to Robert Lockwood Jr. to Sonny Boy Williamson.
- Spend some time at the Lockwood-Stackhouse Acoustic Stage.
- Visit the Hunt Education Center. Located at the south end of historic Cherry St., it was the first purchased building in the history of Teach For America and a symbol of the organization’s commitment to and pride in Helena-West Helena. It’s also where you’ll find one of the official KBBF merchandise stations. While you’re there, don’t miss Helena native Steve Johnson’s amazing photography!
- Make a selfie stop in front of Biscuit Row. Located right across the street from the King Biscuit Blues Festival office on Phillips St., Biscuit Row includes buildings that were home to juke joints and clubs, as well as Interstate Grocery, which made King Biscuit Flour.
- Grab some official King Biscuit Blues Festival merchandise at the KBBF store, located at 319 Phillips St.
- Learn more about the history of historic Helena with a visit to the Helena Museum of Phillips County at 623 Pecan St.
- Cheer on the competitors in the Kenneth Freemyer Memorial Run on Saturday morning.
- Head to the Bit-O-Blues stage and listen to some of the performers.
- Take a selfie with a KBBF volunteer…and tell them thank you for their time! Hundreds of people volunteer year-round to help make the King Biscuit Blues Festival one of Arkansas’s best festivals…and KBBF wouldn’t be the same without them.
This is just a small list of suggestions. There are tons of fun things to do, see, eat and enjoy at the Biscuit! To find out more about the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival, or to see full schedules for the stages, go to www.KingBiscuitFestival.com.